movie film review | chris tookey


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  Dunkirk Review
Tookey's Rating
5 /10
Average Rating
8.71 /10
Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh
Full Cast >

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan

Released: 2017
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Length: 106

Early in World War II, soldiers are attacked as they try to leave the mainland of Europe.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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As long as you see it on a big screen and donít think too hard about the vision of history youíre being sold, Dunkirk is an immersive experience. Technically, the film is a tour de force. Much of the film is on an epic scale, but the camerawork draws us close into the action too. Itís a mightily impressive piece of impressionism.

Like the opening battle scene of Saving Private Ryan and much of Oliver Stoneís Platoon, it gives you the feeling of being there, as a scared and helpless soldier. The story of Dunkirk is told in three different ways and in three different time frames, all leading to the same rescue finale: first, through the eyes of the hapless, almost zombie-like soldiers waiting to be rescued on the beaches at Dunkirk, wondering when and if boats will come; second, through the eyes of the fighter pilots (notably Tom Hardy) trying to defend them from the Luftwaffe in a series of rather repetitive dogfights; and third, from the perspective of the crew (captained by Mark Rylance) on one of many small boats trying to arrive in time to rescue them.

Itís in keeping with a film so politically correct that the German forces are never mentioned by nationality, but only as ďthe enemyĒ, that the tone is fashionably anti-heroic. The solders are weak and frightened, rather than brave and defiant. They bicker and even fight among themselves. A few are racist. Almost all are ridiculously young. The pilots are hard to tell apart and muffled to the point of incomprehensibility by their masks, so minimal personality emerges from them. As the civilian, part-time captain, Rylance plays the least undeveloped character on screen, but even he is laconic, matter-of-fact; this is something he feels he has to do, but heís kindly and sympathetic when a panicky, shellshocked soldier he picks up from the sea (Cillian Murphy) tries to stop him from carrying on towards danger. When that results in the pointless death of a youthful member of the crew, it is portrayed ironically by the director as a needless accident, rather than heroic self-sacrifice. The film resolutely refuses to draw a distinction between goodies and baddies.

Paradoxically, the picture that emerges is one of extraordinary heroism. As the naval commander who could flee from danger but doesnít, Kenneth Branagh comes across as a good, brave leader, even though he has few lines, no character background and no discernible development. As one of three Spitfire pilots, Tom Hardyís choice to fight on despite his own near-certain death is depicted as courageous and even liberating. Rylance and his son represent the determination of ordinary people to defend their countrymen. Even those flawed soldiers earn our respect for their sheer resilience under fire. German Composer Hans Zimmer manages to sneak in quite a lot of slowed-down Edward Elgar, towards the end. Itís not really in harmony with Christopher Nolanís anti-heroic stance, but never mind.

The trouble is that many who see Dunkirk are disappointed, and I was too. I wasnít moved by the script or the characters, and the acting is solid rather than revelatory. You wonít find any Oscar nominations for the performers in this film; itís all about the technical side - predominantly the director and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. Itís a triumph of spectacle and special effects, rather than narrative, character progression or humanity.

A minority of critics condemned it as having the soulless approach of a shoot-íem-up video game. Thatís over-stating the filmís heartlessness, and its violence. The film has a 12A certificate; itís nowhere near as honest as Spielbergís Saving Private Ryan about showing the gruesomeness of war. Nolan is clearly more interested in creating suspense than he is in showing bloodshed and exploding body parts. I leave it up to you whether thatís a good thing or a bad thing; certainly, his decision earned it a more commercially generous certificate than most modern war films achieve, but that is at the expense of realism.

However determined Nolan is to deglamourise the participants (and he is), the courage of the characters keeps breaking through. But I couldnít help thinking that a more humanitarian director would have made a deeper film, less dependent on flash and pyrotechnics, and truer to the facts. None of this bothered my successor on the Daily Mail, who gave it five stars out of five, nor indeed the vast majority of critics, who raved pretty much in unison.

Many old war films look dated in their gung-ho enthusiasm; this one - especially when it is shown on a small screen, where its disjointedness and incoherent storyline will be cruelly exposed - will eventually be seen as a product of its own times: curiously unwilling to appreciate the good, the noble and the patriotic, determined to wallow in negativism, uninterested in character, refusing to take sides in an important conflict.

Nolanís decision to avoid using CGI has unfortunate ramifications on the filmís veracity. Intelligent members of the audience may be left wondering why 400,000 soldiers at Dunkirk are being protected by just three Spitfire pilots. Nolan, possibly inadvertently but possibly not, makes this lack of aerial support look like a colossal act of stupidity by the British authorities. In reality, numerous pilots flew 3,500 sorties at Dunkirk. Nolan either canít or wonít show this.

Similarly, the British naval response looks pitiful - I saw only two destroyers. The real Dunkirk involved 39 destroyers and 309 other fighting naval craft. I appreciate that Nolan didnít have those kinds of resources, but isnít that something modern computer technology could have helped him with? Again, the film suggests that the British authorities were unwilling to mobilise their own navy, and left soldiers on the beaches to die. Untrue.

By picking on one pleasure boat steaming towards Dunkirk on one mission, Nolan ignores the scale of the small-boat armada - in total, 933 vessels were involved - and even the climactic wide-shot of boats coming to the rescue of the soldiers utterly lacks the right sense of scale. And what about the extraordinary story of the Medway Queen, a paddle steamer that shot down three German planes and made seven round-trips, to rescue 7000 soldiers? Itís nowhere to be seen. By focussing on one (fictitious) saintly captain who appears pretty much a pacifist, Nolan ignores the vast majority of civilians who mobilised. He certainly doesnít want us to know what motivated them.

Weirdly, too, Nolan makes this a virtually all-male film. We see one nurse who provides tea for the homecoming solders, but nothing of the female evacuees from the beaches, who were numerous. Itís virtually all-white, too - another curious distortion, given the number of colonial soldiers involved. Nolan would not wish to be thought sexist or racist, but this selectivity does - again - undermine the filmís probity. Did Nolan not care about telling the truth, or was he more concerned to attract the kind of young, white, male audience that has flocked to his previous work?

I can understand Nolanís expressed wish not to get bogged down in politics, but his reluctance to show the planning and tactical acumen that went into the Dunkirk evacuation means that he is telling only part of the story. His refusal to explore the historical context or the military reasons for why Dunkirk occurred left me with a feeling of incompleteness and a suspicion that Nolan is a good deal less interested in the detail of the event than he should have been. He trots out Churchillís Dunkirk-inspired ďbeachesĒ speech towards the end, but he conspicuously erases Churchill and other authority figures from the story of how and why Dunkirk came about.

Dunkirk is a film I can admire for its technical achievements - the director succeeds very well in making the movie he wanted to make - but it left me wishing he had made at film with a greater feeling of obligation towards history and much more human understanding. Some will find the picture impressive; but for me it suffers from a surfeit of emotional detachment and a frightening lack of curiosity about real events and genuine human emotions. I just didnít like it.

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